Trump’s Travels Travails: Manners (Un)maketh the Man

The multination Trump trip to the Middle East and Europe was not an unalloyed success. Nobody was hurt and nobody fell down the steps, but the net effect was not particularly pleasant. Or successful. J. BROOKS SPECTOR looks in at the damage.

In his first international journey as president, President Trump hammered together meetings in Saudi Arabia, Israel/West Bank, a visit to the Pope in the Vatican City, a Nato leaders summit in Brussels and a G7 conclave back in Italy. And, along the way, he generated more than a fair share of shock, horror, amazement, and embarrassment. But will this trip have any lasting impact when we look back in a year or two? Probably not, even if the most embarrassing moments of this caravan have been memorably captured on the internet, and especially on social media, and now threaten to outlive us all.

Well, okay, he didn’t spontaneously combust in the Pope’s presence; he didn’t smack another president right across the chops at the Nato meeting; and he didn’t begin to giggle at gloriously inappropriate moments at the G7 meeting the moment someone explained the facts of global warming in any detail. He didn’t make his move and grab one or two or three of King Salman’s wives because he can; or spit on the Wailing Wall.

Heck, he didn’t even have a bout of projectile nausea, right onto the lap of another government leader – as George HW Bush had so unhappily managed to do to a very unlucky Japanese Prime, Kiichi Miyazawa, at a formal banquet during Bush’s official visit to Tokyo. So, from this perspective of this rather low bar, the trick of letting Donald Trump loose upon an unsuspecting world might be termed a great success.

But what did he actually accomplish? In Saudi Arabia, the optics of the trip generated some truly bewildering photo and video ops. Not least of these was his receiving a monstrous, gaudy, gold bauble on a heavy chain from the king while Trump bowed obsequiously for this honour (something he had excoriated his predecessor for doing when he had met the Saudi king). Then there was his jarringly arhythmic footwork with other swordsmen and their traditional swords. And there was that truly bewildering hands-on moment with that glowing orb. What, exactly, was the point of that particular exercise, and which genius was responsible for arranging such a surreal moment to be a scheduled highlight and photo op?

But there were some theoretically substantive moments to his visit to Riyadh. Trump did a whoop, a war dance, and a formal handshake over an agreement for the US to sell a rather obscene amount of state-of-the-art military gear to the Saudis, going on into the foreseeable future. (Admittedly, much of the spadework on this deal happened to take place during the latter part of his predecessor’s term of office. One doesn’t do a deal of this magnitude in a couple of days.)

And Trump had, after all, gotten about as much televisual pomp and ceremony as the Saudis could muster. There were flags, banners, bands, red carpets, vast projections of the Trumpian physiognomy on the walls of his hotel and much more. And then there were those formal receiving of the VIP visitor moments in a room decorated with even more gold than the Trumpster himself could muster in his own penthouse.

Trump gave a speech to an assembled crowd of various unelected Arab potentates where he urged them to sign on to an all-out effort to rid the globe of terror and to confront the evils of Iran’s support for such bad things. Okay, terror really is a bad thing; innocent people are killed; cities are laid waste; civilisations tremble, and the global order is disrupted. All this is true, but is crushing this nastiness – assuming it is possible – the sole, single, overwhelming goal of US foreign policy?

Among the problems with this meeting were such inconvenient facts that, just as Trump was railing against Iran, unlike the rulers of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait and a bunch of others in the room, Iran was then in the final moments of a relatively free, fair and honest election (with all the women in the country eligible to vote, no less). And it was a poll in which incumbent President Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate as far as those things go, was in the process of decisively trouncing his more zealot-like opponent. Under Rouhani, despite his government’s sometimes tacit alliance with Hezbollah, the Iranians have stayed the course, so far, in adhering to the P5+1 nuclear agreement, freezing Iranian nuclear weapons development. The irony of all this seemed entirely lost on the Trumpians.

Moreover, by using this moment the way he did, Trump seemingly (unwittingly, unknowingly, deliberately?) set up a divisive struggle for leadership in the Muslim Middle East between Sunni and Shia – with the Saudis the former, and the Iranians the latter. Oh, and by the way, Trump managed to spend his whole time in Saudi Arabia ignoring the fact that the Saudis have been quietly funding radical Wahabi preachings in mosques around the world, that women, non-Muslims and others have few if any rights there, that the majority of the 9/11 perpetrators were Saudi, etc, etc, etc.

And so, straight into the rubbish bin of diplomacy and history for any efforts to attach any importance to women’s rights or more general human rights in comments by an American leader in a place like Saudi Arabia. And this leaves out even the most modest of criticisms for the manner of Saudi engagement in that nasty civil war in neighbouring Yemen. Oh well, it is just about everything onto the altar of fighting non-state actor terror.

Then it was on to Israel where the Trumpster told Binyamin Netanyahu how pleased he was to be there after having just spent some time in the Middle East. Ouch. Map reading is a lost art on Air Force One, it would appear. Trump told the Israelis that the two nations’ relationship was unbreakable, and that Netanyahu was a firm friend of the US and vice versa. There was no mention of restraint on the construction of any of those pesky new settlements on the West Bank; and no tangible proposals to re-kick-start Israel/Palestine negotiations, despite the fact that first-son-in-law Jared Kushner has been given full, total dominion over finding a way to peace in our time for that long-time, vexed conflict.

To be fair, the Trump sherpas (those officials who actually negotiate, organise the details of such visits in advance, and then guide the process on the ground) did get one big thing right. In recognition of long-stated US policy that the status of East Jerusalem has not yet been determined, let alone any acknowledgement of Israeli formal suzerainty over that landscape; when Trump visited the West/Wailing Wall – the remaining portion of the Herodian Second Temple – and then the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, he was not accompanied by Israeli officials, only by religious leaders whose rights to do so are not in question.

But then Trump fumbled the ball, writing an absolutely, embarrassingly jejune comment about the great people he had met at the Yad Vashem memorial to Holocaust victims, almost as if he had been at a wedding or fancy smantsy state dinner.

Then he showed up in Bethlehem to meet with Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas. There he left something of a sour taste in the mouths of his interlocutor, failing to say much of anything about Palestinian rights, the urgency of negotiations, or the importance of aiming towards a two-state solution. There are obvious diplomatic formulations that have been used in the past for such comments, but given Trump’s obvious disdain for such niceties or precedents, let alone for those in the bureaucracy who would utter them or who have dealt with this set of questions for years, Abbas was largely left standing at the altar.

Next stop was on to Rome to visit with Pope Francis. Now, president and pope have had some strained words in the past little while between them over the urgency of addressing climate change, refugees and immigration, and in dealing with the poor who are still among us. Making some kind of point, Trump gave the pope a gift of Martin Luther King’s writings. (Given the late Dr King’s views on war, the poor, and other such things, one wonders what, exactly, motivated this choice of a gift.) In return, the pope gave Trump copies of some of his own recent statements on those very contentious issues – and here one understands exactly what his point was. Pope to Donald: It is time to read these words; to take note of their content; and change your tone, your timbre and your tactics. Sort of biblical, Book of Daniel-ish, isn’t that?

Now Trump’s detractors have had a field day with the photographs of Trump, his wife, and his daughter from their call on the pope. Some have been chortling that Pope Francis’ facial expression was a clear read of his views on the US president. Besides, so the comments go, if only Uncle Fester and The Hand had also managed to be there, given the attire choices, the pictures might even have been publicity stills for a revival of “The Addams Family” film series. But, that is not fair. What is fair to note, however, is that lip-curling look of faint contempt on Trump’s face. Now, that is unsettling. Who is this man? What does he actually believe?

Then it was on to the new Nato building inauguration and the leaders’ meeting of the Nato members in Brussels, and some new people to insult, it seems. The thundering Trump was now on the loose, lecturing and hectoring the assemblage over their failure to “pay to play” in the big leagues with the Americans in order to further their mutual defence via Nato. He roared, he thundered, yet again, that most Nato members owe money for their defence, and that they have been getting a free ride from Uncle Sugar for years and years, and it is finally time to end this.

Can no one explain to him that the defence budgets of the respective nations do not go into a common bank account for which the US has been forced to cover all the costs and overdrafts? And that various of the Nato members have already announced plans to ratchet up their defence spending in future, based on their respective domestic and political realities, as well as to aim towards earlier commitments to the previously recommended level of 2% of GDP to be devoted to defence? Or that if other nations did succeed in increasing spending, it would hardly mean US spending would decline in military terms? And, finally, that in many nations where the US bases troops and stuff, the host nation covers much of the local costs – making it probably cheaper to base some troops abroad than at home.

Throughout the Trump speechifying, it was pretty clear many others there were rolling their eyes, at least in their minds, and that they were barely able to restrain themselves from giving physical expression to their thoughts. Or, as UK’s Independent reported it on Sunday, German Chancellor Merkel...

... has suggested her country and Europe can no longer rely on the US under Donald Trump. Speaking at a campaign event held in a Bavarian beer tent, Germany’s Chancellor emphasised the need for friendly relations with the US, Britain and Russia, but added: ‘We Europeans must really take our destiny into our own hands.’ Ms Merkel said that as the traditional western alliance is threatened by the new US presidency and Brexit, ‘the times in which we can fully count on others are somewhat over, as I have experienced in the past few days.’ While Germany and Europe would strive to maintain relations with America and Britain, Ms Merkel said ‘we need to know we must fight for our own future, as Europeans, for our destiny.’ ”

And speaking of physical expression, what in the world was going through Trump’s mind when he shoved the Montenegrin prime minister out of the way so that he, the Trumpster, could be in the centre of the group photograph? Well, okay, Montenegro is hardly in the superpower class (they even had to borrow Italian for the name of their country), but it is a Nato member just like all the others and, besides, you just don’t do the boorish bear in a china shop act if the world’s news cameras are following every move you make.

No manners, that man. None, it seems. He is clearly not one in the habit of heeding the advice of the 15th century head of Eton College, William Harmon, who first advised us, “Manners maketh man.” (Of course Polonius tells us it is clothes that do that instead, but remember what happens to poor Polonius soon enough, behind the arras.)

Then, it was on to a G7 summit in Sicily for the last act of this trip, where Donald Trump told his co-leaders he is still thinking about that dreadful Paris climate accord, and that he will make up his mind, finally, this coming week. Then he will communicate his decision to global supplicants, once he has studied the pictures in the briefing memorandum his staff is preparing for him. Unlike everyone else at this meeting, his disagreements merited a separate part of the communiqué issued at the end of the meeting, effectively saying everyone else agrees to uphold what was agreed upon in Paris, but the US can’t get it together – yet – to go ahead with it.

The Independent went on to note, quoting Angela Merkel, again,

“ ‘the entire discussion about climate was very difficult, if not to say very dissatisfying,’ she told reporters. ‘There are no indications whether the United States will stay in the Paris Agreement or not.’ G7 leaders went on to blame the US for the failure to reach an agreement on climate change, in an unusually frank statement which read: ‘The United States of America is in the process of reviewing its policies on climate change and on the Paris Agreement and thus is not in a position to join the consensus on these topics. Understanding this process, the heads of state and of government of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United Kingdom and the presidents of the European Council and of the European Commission reaffirm their strong commitment to swiftly implement the Paris Agreement.’ ”

(A cynic’s nasty, stray thought here. Is there some kind of secretive real estate deal in the making for the Trump Organisation, connected to getting access to newly created prime oceanfront property in the future, once the oceans rise a couple of metres over their current levels – if the global temperatures keep rising and the polar ice caps and Greenland’s ice cover start to disintegrate? Naw, that’s just too bizarre, even for the Trumpster and his ilk, right?)

Of course, American domestic issues are not put into abeyance whenever the president travels abroad, even if such trips are partially designed to deflect attention away from such unpleasantnesses. Even as Trump was roiling the waters from Tehran to Brussels, the drip, drip, drip of further damaging revelations about that unseemly relationship between Trump aides/former aides and Russian diplomats and still less savoury operatives has continued to come out into the sunlight through leaks to the media. Most recently, it seems that the first-son-in-law had attempted to work out a special deal with the Russians to create a secure back-channel link through Russian communications connections. Before the Trump family took over the White House formally.

While it is not clear if this was illegal, it certainly was unprecedented, and it defies all logic about the way a presidential transfer of power is supposed to work. The US only has one president at a time. 

There is now a flood of subpoenas coming forward for relevant emails, memos, appointment calendars and the like for a whole raft of people. Until now, the Trump defenders had been able to argue those putative Russian connections were incidental or with low-level individuals who aren’t inside the Oval Office. No longer, it seems.

Now that this mess has touched Jared Kushner, it is going to get nastier. The Trump White House has been reported as setting up a “war room” to deal with the political fallout from this snarl and his team is apparently interviewing a whole battalion’s worth of additional lawyers to build the president’s defences.

This kind of thing probably is only going to encourage still more leaks, especially once Robert Mueller III really gets going in his work as special counsellor to the Justice Department with his broad writ to investigate this mess, and as the various congressional committees (headed by Republicans) must also begin to grasp the uncomfortable nettle of tackling the president’s defences. Unhappy days ahead. DM

Photo: US President Donald J. Trump shakes hands with French President Emmanuel Macron (R) during a meeting on the sidelines of the NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) summit, at the US ambassador's residence in Brussels, Belgium, 25 May 2017. EPA/PETER DEJONG/POOL MAXPPP OUT